Is There Really No Smart Writing
on Women’s Fashion?

Mary Davis

Reading Women in Clothes is like spending Saturday afternoon at Nordstrom Rack. Massive, chaotic, and noisy, both are messy in a way that could be inadvertent but could be purposeful: is this disarray a sign of how much they have to offer, or a commercial tactic to make their goods seem limitless? For reader and shopper alike, this confusion seems to offer the promise of a treasure hunt: somewhere in the lackluster piles, perhaps, lies a gem that has slipped unnoticed into the inventory. Most often, the search is exhausting, annoying, and futile, but on rare occasion it pays off. Win or lose, there is satisfaction in gaming the system, whether by scoring bargain-price merchandise or by recasting a light fashion read as an intellectual exercise.

Heidi Julavits and Sheila Heti, who edited Women in Clothes with Leanne Shapton, make plain their intention to take the high road in the book’s introduction, which consists of a series of reprinted emails and Skype chat transcriptions documenting the origins of the project. We learn that the idea grew from Heti’s work in April 2012 on what she describes as “a little piece on women’s fashion” that was to be based on a six-question survey. Designed to investigate the “rules” that respondents followed on matters of shopping, dress, and brand loyalty, the survey also probed broader issues, including concepts of style and the linkage of clothes and identity. The final question was typical in its open-ended approach: “What is dressing about for you? What are you trying to do or achieve when you dress up?” Julavits, to whom Heti sent the six questions for vetting (having been “partly inspired to think about dressing after reading [her] latest novel”), responded enthusiastically: “i LOVE these questions!!!! maybe you and i should write a women’s fashion book that isn’t stupid like all women’s fashion books.” Days later Heti was on board: “I think this could be a great book collaboration! I was trying to find a smart women’s fashion philosophy (philosophy of style) book this weekend, and not one!”

The Women in Clothes project quickly took off. More questions—about makeup, hairstyling, sharing clothes—were built into the survey, which would eventually balloon to 85 inquiries (some encompassing multiple questions) ranging from “What’s your process getting dressed in the morning” to “Please describe your body” and “Please describe your emotions.” Shapton was added to the project; as Heti wrote to Julavits near the end of April that year, “Leanne would be wonderful to get to pass the survey around, as she knows many people in lots of different countries, and many artists too. Perhaps she could also provide illustrations.” Heti continued the message:

 

I think the one thing we want to steer away from is pronouncements on fashion from people like Coco Chanel or Diane von Furstenberg (“A woman’s style is in direct proportion to her misery” or whatever, I just made that up). I think we’ll want regular women, not only the most fashionable. People who aren’t that fashionable may be quite smart, nevertheless, about what they have on.

 

Fast forward to the transcript of a Skype meeting involving the three editors in January 2014. In this conversation, Julavits reflects on her earlier attempt to become a gardener, without any formal training:

 

I figured, How hard will it be for me to make a garden? I’ll just go out and plant one … then I realized that I had never in my life, not once, looked at gardens! … and that’s when I realized: I’ve paid attention to women … how women dress and present themselves is a subject for study, and for better or worse, it’s where I’ve put my energies. The knowledge I’d gained felt really sedimentary, really layered, and it gave me more appreciation for the topic of dressing as something worthy of excavation or exploration. Seeing my thoughts about dressing from that angle—of trying to grow a garden—ennobled all that learning in a way I’d never considered before.

 

This introductory chatter raises questions about the state of fashion writing in the early 21st century. Have we reached the point where anyone who simply wears clothes or holds opinions about dress is “ennobled” to publish on the topic? Or is there still value in a mode of fashion scholarship founded in expertise, experience, and research? And, ultimately, what is the reader who is interested in fashion hungry to know?

<i>Female (left) and male (right) dress in</i> Le Mercure Galant<i> (ca. 1672)</i>

One way to address these questions is by having a look at the proliferating “Top 10” lists devoted to books on fashion and style. Women in Clothes made it onto a number of these lists, including the Huffington Post’s “Best Books to Read for Fall 2014,” InStyle’s year-end list of “Fashionable Books,” and the Financial Times’ “Best of 2014, Fashion and Style” list; it is currently, at the time of writing, ranked fourth on the New York Times best-seller list in the category of “Fashion, Manners, and Customs.” There, the book is part of a mixed bag that includes instruction manuals on nail art (#1), scarf tying (#3), and makeup (#5); the reprint of an etiquette guide first published in 1938 (#8); a guide to entertaining à la Downton Abbey (#7), a coffee-table book on Vogue’s exhibitions and parties at the Metropolitan Museum (#9), a biography of Coco Chanel (#10), and yet another book dedicated to making any woman, “wherever you are,” Parisian (#6). Julavits, Heti, and Shapton are also joined on the list by one author they explicitly set out not to emulate—Diane von Furstenberg—whose memoir, The Woman I Wanted To Be, occupies the #7 slot (and includes not a word about the connection between fashion and misery).

Instruction manuals, coffee-table tomes and exhibition catalogues, biographies and memoirs, photographic surveys, anything with a Parisian slant: these are the typical categories into which works on fashion and style are now organized. Women in Clothes has been acclaimed, in part, for its perceived achievement in breaking down these boundaries. The authors’ ethnography is indeed ambitious. With input from 639 survey respondents across the globe, it promises a democratic, participatory, and global inquiry into the topic that is at once visual, visceral, personal, and social. “This vast field of study,” wrote Financial Times fashion editor Jo Ellison, “asks not what we wear, but why we wear. It unites hundreds of voices in a sartorial conversation that is blissfully free of angst, refreshingly unfashiony, and spiced throughout with terrific illustrations and visual projects.”

Win or lose, there is satisfaction in gaming the system, whether by scoring bargain-price merchandise or by recasting a light fashion read as an intellectual exercise.

While the book promises to report information gleaned from a survey disseminated to a large number of people, closer scrutiny reveals that the respondents are mostly women (or people who dress as women) and the majority are part of a network that connects back to New York City’s literary, fashion, and art scenes. Perhaps the sense of traversing a larger terrain comes from how the material is assembled as a patchwork of ideas and images. While the table of contents suggests that the book has been curated into sections based on type or intent, its pieces are scattered and not cohesive.

The editors have structured the book’s image-based studies, which are strewn throughout, adding depth and dimension, into three main categories. “Collections” presents artsy photo grids of an individual respondent’s belongings: T-shirts, bras, jewelry, lingerie, earplugs, lipstick blots, floss sticks, and so on. “Wear Areas” is a series of body outlines annotated by respondents with comments about everything from inherited traits (bunions, freckles) to bodily transformations (tattoos, breast reduction). “Visual Projects” is a catchall for presentations of illustrations and photographs, with and without accompanying text. The Visual Project entitled “A Map of My Floor,” for example, uses line drawings to chronicle the piles each editor amasses as she struggles with the decision about what to wear for a specific occasion: the funeral of a family friend (Julavits), a panel discussion following a film screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (Shapton), and an onstage book reading at a literary festival in Cologne (Heti).

It is illuminating to learn about these women’s wardrobes through their descriptions of the illustrated items. For Shapton, the possible choices include a “vintage red Balmain A-line bouclé dress … vintage Roger Vivier flats, found at an estate sale for $5 … bespoke tweed jacket from Ireland … Chanel flats, daytime.” For Julavits, there is a “Liz Claiborne silk jumpsuit … Comme des Garçons black tulle skirt,” and a number of outfits from the 1960s, supposedly under consideration as a way of honoring the deceased friend, whose heyday, the reader assumes, came in that decade. Finally, for Heti, there are items she has picked up on a European book tour, including a “silver shirt with three-quarter-length sleeves … black leather shirt with three-quarter-length sleeves … black semi-sheer shirt from COS” as well as a “deep purple Chanel top” and a “cream-colored Isabel Marant shirt.” Heti notes that one of her rejects, a gray sweatshirt from Topshop, is “too informal and it stinks. Needs a wash,” while Julavits comments that the black and brown stripes of a “sixties knit wool dress” make her “feel bouncy like a Snoopy dog.”

THE BOOK’S METHODOLOGY IS ORIGINAL, BUT ITS MUSINGS AND IMAGERY ARE LARGELY ANECDOTAL AND EXPERIENTIAL.

The clothing these women mention offhandedly and ultimately reject is not the stuff of ordinary wardrobes. All three editors, wise to fashion, are nonchalant and often dismissive about clothing, even while expressing anxiety about dress. On their floors, couture and luxury brands mingle with vintage finds and discoveries from shops like COS—the mid-market sister of Swedish fast-fashion brand H&M—which at the time this book was published had no shops in the US and thus had its own stamp of exclusivity. Yet none of these items is deemed worthy of serious consideration. In the end, each woman cobbles together an outfit (also described) but makes no comment about whether or how it mattered.

In contrast to the many sections that leave it up to the reader to make connections and supply meaning, one of the most affecting segments in Women in Clothes is a two-part photo-essay entitled “Mothers as Others.” Here the survey requested that respondents “Send a photograph of your mother from the time before she had children and tell us what you see.” The images and the stories returned are poignant and revealing, allowing a glimpse of the way in which dress and style have meaning in the moment and across generations. Clothes here are embedded in larger matters of identity and memory, inflected variously with discovery, delight, sadness, regret, and even simple fascination. Here, the lingering emotional power of dress rises to the surface.

Like the image-based content, the text of Women in Clothes is curated into categories. There are two sections called “Surveys.” In the first, the focus is on individuals, as select responses of seven participants (including Lena Dunham, herself a recent Vogue cover girl) are reproduced without interruption. In the second, responses are grouped around a theme, so that many thoughts about “breasts” or “the situation with your hair” are presented as a whole. A section called “Conversations” includes 38 short interviews, among them a discussion between Cindy Sherman and Molly Ringwald that begins with Sherman’s recollection of her early fascination with paper dolls. There are 24 short essays on a range of topics—from reminiscences about favorite clothing to cultural expectations about dress—gathered in a section called “On Dressing”; nine “Compliments,” in which a respondent recalls an encounter that involved an unsolicited approval of a garment or accessory; and four “Poems,” three of which are recitations of “Textile Names.”

IT IS ILLUMINATING TO LEARN ABOUT THESE WOMEN’S WARDROBES VIA THEIR DESCRIPTIONS OF THE ILLUSTRATED ITEMS.

Amid all the counting and categorizing, the book has breakthrough moments, including journalist Julia Wallace’s interviews with Cambodian garment workers and Sara Ziff’s interview with Reba Sikder, an 18-year-old Bangladeshi garment worker who recounts in harrowing detail how she survived the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka. But nothing approaches the editors’ stated aim of creating “a smart women’s fashion philosophy (philosophy of style) book.” The raw material is gathered, but the critique and analysis remain to be completed.

The editors seem to have a blind spot, since they fail to acknowledge the long and distinguished line of critical and analytical work on fashion and style. That such a line exists is evident in the new book Fashion Writing and Criticism by Peter McNeil and Sanda Miller, which charts the history of dress as a subject of cultural and philosophical inquiry. Reaching back to Aristotle as an early touchstone for this tradition, the authors locate the true beginnings of serious critique about clothing in the work of Denis Diderot, whose reports from 18th-century Parisian salons connected dress to cultural trends and topics. Insightful writing on fashion by a parade of authors including Honoré de Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and Pierre Bourdieu followed; Charles Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” published in 1864, provided a definitive example of how dress could be considered not simply a practical necessity but also a mode of artistry and self-expression. More recently, authors including Anne Hollander, Valerie Steele, and Judith Thurman have written probing studies that contextualize fashion in history and society.

Rhonda Garelick’s Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History is the most recent addition to the line. Illuminating Chanel’s life and work in social and political contexts, this exhaustive study of one of the most significant figures in fashion allows the reader to rethink the “Chanel epigrams” so lightly dismissed by the editors, revealing that they were in fact brilliant distillations of fashion’s cultural and artistic force. Some of the most important contributions in the field have come from journalists, including Guy Trebay, Suzy Menkes, Cathy Horyn, and Lynn Yeager; in 2006 Washington Post reporter Robin Givhan broke new ground by winning the Pulitzer Prize for “witty, closely observed essays that transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism.” All of this work is informed by scholarship, investigation, and on-the-ground research, by personal and professional involvement with fashion, and by an acute sensitivity to the complexity of a global field that is driven by both creative forces and marketplace pressures.

In short, and contrary to the editors’ claims, there is a rich body of literature on the topic of fashion and its philosophies. Women in Clothes chooses not to engage this work, but instead aims to forge a new set of pathways for contemplating and understanding dress in context. The book’s methodology is original, but its musings and imagery are largely anecdotal and experiential. This valuable raw data has the potential to gain worth when analyzed by someone interested in not simply presenting the material but pulling something out of it. In the meantime, the reader who finishes Women in Clothes might circle back to the last question in the survey: “In what way is this stuff important, if at all?”